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'I haven’t told many friends about the racist encounters on the football field'

Kerry All-Ireland winner and current Australian Rules player Stefan Okunbor on his experiences of racism in Ireland.

stefan-okunbor Stefan Okunbor in action for Kerry's U20 team in 2018. Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

STEFAN OKUNBOR GREW up in Tralee in Kerry.

He was born in Moldova and moved to Ireland when he was young with his family – his father Mike, who is from Nigeria, his mother Lidia, who is from Moldova, and his sister Iren.

WhatsApp Image 2020-06-04 at 22.23.26 Stefan pictured as a child with his father and sister

Stefan represented Kerry in Gaelic football in the underage ranks. He enjoyed great success, winning an All-Ireland minor medal in 2016 in Croke Park and won the award for the best U20 footballer in Munster in 2018.

In October of that year he went down a different sporting path when he moved to Australia and joined AFL club Geelong.

The 21-year-old is currently recovering from a serious Achilles injury sustained in January.

He writes today for The42 about his experiences of racism when growing up in Ireland.

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GIVEN THE CURRENT circumstances in America and the recognition that the topic of prejudice and racism is getting worldwide, I feel like this is a good time to share some of my experiences of growing up black in Ireland.

It has always been an uncomfortable topic to converse about with my peers because the majority of them are white and Irish.

Although they would listen, be supportive and respectful, they simply could not understand the profound effect that some of the derogative insults that I have received, have had on my life.

Although racist incidents seldom happened to me whilst growing up in Ireland, on the occasions that they did, they stuck.

A constant reminder that I was a minority.

This piece is to outline the issue of racism that unfortunately is very much active on Irish soil. My black friends share similar experiences, my father has also been a victim which hurts me to say and I too have experienced racism on and off the football field.

Recognising the issue and sharing posts on social media that talk about equality between races is a step forward.

But if it is merely seen as a box ticked by jumping on the activist bandwagon in fear of being labelled a racist if you don’t, it means nothing.

I love Ireland. It is home. I moved to Ireland when I was three years of age and I have been extremely fortunate to have been able to grow up as a proud black Irish man. A few of my friends may read this and will be shocked because I have always shied away from speaking out about any racial incidents I’ve experienced. In the past I found it extremely difficult making my colleagues, who respect you, aware of incidents where I have been belittled and made feel miniscule.

The first racial incident occurred at my first job in Tralee. I worked there during my gap year before starting college. It was the same year I played minor for Kerry. At the ripe age of 17 is when I first deeply questioned people’s views on a black man’s place in Irish society after being called a ‘black bastard’ by another elderly worker who later claimed in a meeting with management that it was just ‘friendly banter’.

I have never taken part in this type of racist banter at my expense with anyone and I definitely did not condone it. Subsequently, he was not fired but given a warning instead. It made me wonder if this is what being out of the relatively safe walls of a secondary school system felt like. The real world. Is this how all old Irish men act towards black people?

My parents were aware of the incident at the time but I wouldn’t have dared to share it with my team-mates on the Kerry minor panel, a place where I and everyone who put the Kerry jersey on was respected for who they were.

stefan-okunbar Stefan Okunbor in action in the 2016 All-Ireland minor football semi-final Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

At the age of six my footballing career started at the Na Gaeil club as an effort by my mother to integrate me into the Irish culture and society as Gaelic football is extremely family and community oriented. I instantly fell in love with the game and have made lifelong friends along the way. Football is ingrained in Irish culture and I always felt that I was doing my bit to support that by playing.

The next two incidents of racial abuse towards me really hit home as they were both on the football field. Both incidents happened in my final year of football before making the transition over to Australia to play AFL. Whilst I was taking a shot against a team which I won’t name out of respect, an opposing player began to make monkey noises.

I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t want to believe it. My team-mates who were nearby and heard him scruffed him up as I stayed clear. I didn’t want anything to do with it. I wanted to block it out of my life and hoped I didn’t have to endure the embarrassment ever again.

I was fortunate to have team-mates who I’ve played alongside since the age of six stick up for me, and to have a manager who dealt with everything after the game while understanding my desire to steer clear from the situation. The opposing player was given an eight-week ban and missed the remainder of the season. For once I felt justice had been served.

The third incident was more shocking than anything as I had played with this player on a different team. It was a very tense game but I never anticipated it would get this heated. There was a moment during the game in which bodies were clashing with ten or so players involved. I engaged with this particular player only for him to turn around and yell out something all too familiar, ‘What do you think you’re doing you black bastard?’

I was lost for words. All my life I have done nothing but give my all for my club, county and community and this was the respect I got. A reminder of the views towards black people that I had been very much willing to forget. I could see that other younger players on my team overheard but I didn’t know how to react. I remained calm and reported the incident to the referee who didn’t send the player off as he didn’t hear the insult.

I couldn’t concentrate for the remainder of the game as I questioned the referee’s decision. I didn’t want to address the incident right after the game because I wanted to forget it had ever happened and I didn’t want to go through the process of meetings and providing evidence and enduring the embarrassment of the whole case being made public.

I didn’t want to feel more marginalised than I already did. I brushed it all under the rug. It’s been a chip on my shoulder ever since.

Growing up playing football in Kerry, you would garner some level of respect from your peers. I was seen as a Kerry footballer and being black made me stick out. I haven’t told many friends about the racist encounters on the football field because the thought of my friends knowing that an opposing player thought that little of me and would call me a black bastard was crippling.

stefan-okunbor Stefan Okunbor with his man-of-the-match award after the 2018 Munster U20 final Source: Laszlo Geczo/INPHO

I am not painting a whole nation with the same brush. I can’t generalise a country due to the ignorance of a few.

I cannot stress enough how grateful I am to have forged my life in Ireland. Ireland is a beautiful and great place to raise a family. I just hope that these incidents that I’ve shared and the realisation that everyone globally is coming to terms with can make people act differently when witnessing any form of racism. It is a topic that can easily be overlooked.

These are just three incidents in my life that I felt would be most important to address. There’s countless deeper ways that people’s comments could subconsciously segregate and affect minorities. I hope people can come away from reading this more aware and understanding about the issue of racism and stamp it out for good.

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The42 Team

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